The dispute between Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors now threatens to reshape both the political and literal geography of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is considering a plan to dig a canal that would turn the Qatari peninsula into an island, an official revealed on Friday.
“As a citizen, I am impatiently waiting for the details of the implementation of the East Salwa island project, this great historic project that will change the region’s geography,” gushed Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a tweet on Friday.
Reuters described the plan in question and noted it has been floating around for a while, but was widely assumed to be bluster meant to intimidate Qatar:
Reports about the canal first emerged on Sabq, a news website close to the government in April. Unnamed sources described Saudi plans to build a military base and a nuclear waste dump beside a 60 kilometer (37 mile) channel measuring 200 meters wide and 20 meters deep and stretching across the entire border with Qatar.
The cost was estimated at 2.8 billion riyals ($747 million).
Further reports in the newspaper Makkah in June said Riyadh was moving ahead with the plans, with five unnamed companies invited to bid on the project and a winner to be announced in September.
A 200-meter-wide canal would not be the most formidable of obstacles, but editorial cartoons of an angry Crown Prince Mohammed using a hacksaw to chop Qatar off and watching it float away into the sea are easy to envision.
If the Saudis really go ahead with the plan, there is little Qatar could do to stop them, as the Washington Post observed in July that all of the land for the proposed canal lies in Saudi territory. Canal enthusiast Qahtani has confidently predicted the canal would pose no challenge to international law.
The Post cited a number of reasons to doubt the seriousness of the project, not least of which is the poor state of the Saudi government’s finances. As Professor Andreas Krieg of London’s King’s College put it, $747 million is a lot of money to spend on a “P.R. stunt.”
Another reason to doubt the seriousness of the plan is that the Saudis simultaneously boasting of using the canal to support tourism, marinas, and water sports parks and promising to build a nuclear waste dump in the area.